Today, Juneteenth is the newest federal holiday in the United States. But do we know the women who worked and sacrificed many years to educate and share the meaning and significance of Juneteenth?
Three leading ladies of the movement, Opal Lee, Clare Peoples and Lula Briggs Galloway worked and sacrificed in their respective cities for many years to establish the holiday on a national level. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan once shared that anything of value has a difficulty factor attached to it.
There were tremendous difficulties and challenges in getting Juneteenth acknowledged as a federal holiday although, in the beginning, it began as an informal celebration by Blacks in Galveston, Texas, and other parts of the state, before growing.
Blacks in Texas learned of their “freedom” more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Texas was the last state where Blacks received the message. On June 19, an army of Union troops announced by executive decree that enslaved Black people had indeed been freed.
However, this was initially only applicable in the Confederate States. It was not until a year later that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery across the entire United States, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The exception, according to the U.S. Constitution, is “except as a punishment for a crime.”
Today most states recognize the holiday with different activities and celebrations to educate and highlight the importance of this day in history. Juneteenth is a combination of the words “June” and “nineteen” or June 19th mispronounced by former slaves who were prevented from reading and writing. There have been different names recognizing June 19th over the years including: Juneteenth National Independence Day, Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Black Independence Day.
Opal Lee, a 97-year-old resident of Marshall, Texas, is known as a “grandmother of the Juneteenth movement.” She realized people were not being taught about the importance of this day, so she made an effort to dedicate her life to spreading the message. Ms. Lee began “Opal’s Walk 2 D.C.” in 2016. She started with the plan to walk the 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to gain support from Congress to officially name Juneteenth a national holiday as well as bring attention to other disparities Black people still suffer, according to The Real Opal Lee website.
“We’ve got to address the disparities, and I’m speaking about homelessness and joblessness and health care that some people can get and others can’t, and the police brutality and climate change,” said Ms. Lee. “None of us are free, until we are all free,” she said. Born October 7, 1926, Ms. Lee shares the same birthday as the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Lula Briggs Galloway was another key figure and organizer of early Juneteenth celebrations. She spent years in the early 1970s lobbying for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday. She is the author of the book, “Juneteenth: Ring the Bell of Freedom,” former CEO of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage, Inc. and founder of the Juneteenth Creative Cultural Center and Museum in Saginaw, Mich., which commemorated the emancipation of Black American slaves.
She died in 2008 but spent many years traveling the country to spread the word about our history, said her daughter Kim Roundtree, according to an article on Spectrum News. She said her mother at one point was a Black Panther.“She was okay with it being nationally recognized, although she wanted it to be a federal holiday, it wasn’t as important as educating people,” Ms. Roundtree said, reported spectrumlocalnews.com.
Clara Peoples is known as “Mother of Juneteenth.” She moved to Vanport, Oregon, in 1945 where she worked for Kaiser Shipyards during World War II and started a Juneteenth event. Later she started the non-profit organization Juneteenth Oregon before she passed away in 2015. Her granddaughter Jenelle Jack and her family now run the organization to carry on their mother’s legacy. “Once we go, the younger people need to carry the baton,” Ms. Jack said, reported The Oregonian newspaper. This year they celebrated the 50th Annual celebration, the newspaper reported.
On June 19, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the historic day into law in the aftermath of nationwide protests following the brutal death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police. National recognition for Juneteenth resurfaced as well as demands for Congress to pass the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The George Floyd legislation failed.
Over half of U.S. states acknowledge the Juneteenth holiday but not every state. States with large Black populations such as New York, Illinois, Texas and Louisiana have enacted laws to observe the holiday; others such as North and South Dakota and Montana have not.